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Op-Ed: Why we must wake up to the health benefits of plants

The idea that plants can help improve our health and wellbeing is not new. For as long as humans have existed plants and herbs have been used for their medicinal properties all across the world. Recently, however, there seems to have been a shift in the acceptance of just how much plants can benefit our health.

Take marijuana, for example. Easily the most controversial ‘health-boosting’ plant there is, lately there has been a swing in public opinion. In 2016, 23 different states have medical marijuana laws and Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia have all legalized recreational marijuana — something that would have seemed almost impossible just a few years ago.

Marijuana as medicine

While people have used marijuana for millennia (scorched cannabis seeds have been unearthed in burial trenches that date back to 3,000 BC) the failed ‘War on Drugs” saw a smear campaign surround the unassuming cannabis sativa plant. The theory purported was that marijuana was an exceptionally dangerous drug that will devastate both a user’s psychological and physical health, incite irresponsible behavior and create disdain for conventional American ideals. The sentence for selling this plant was comparable to that of selling firearms, sending out an obvious point: weed is as harmful as guns.

Yet, despite the outrage from marijuana’s critics who believe it is a ‘gateway drug’ with numerous devastating side effects, the drug laws have been relaxed, and with this has come a new awakening of its health benefits. The more research that is done into this plant, the more scientists agree that deep within its leaves lies a “medicinal treasure trove”. It should be stressed that marijuana is not without its risks, but many researchers regardless believe it will soon be recognized as a “miracle drug”. But why?

Evidence suggests that the cannabis plant has an exceptionally wide range of medicinal advantages, from preventing glaucoma-generated blindness to alleviating nausea in cancer patients undertaking chemotherapy. Countless studies submit that it also decreases muscle spasms from cerebral palsy, paraplegia and multiple sclerosis, reduces chronic pain, diminishes the occurrence of epileptic seizures, and averts asthma attacks and migraines.

Houseplants as air filters

But it isn’t just the benefits of more controversial plants that the world is waking up to; the humble houseplant has found itself at the center of a flurry of news articles in recent months, as new studies reveal the extent of the effect they can have on mood, productivity and wellbeing. Studies have shown that in the workplace, having a plant on or near your desk can increase efficiency by 15 percent. It is also proven that plants can, often significantly, help boost mood and lessen depression that stems from stress. But that isn’t all.

Plants cleanse and purify the air, greatly advancing general health, quality of sleep and temperament. Certain toxic chemicals that exist in the air (volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) are considerably reduced by plants. In a recent NASA Clean Air Study, researchers found that certain plants are exceptionally effective at reducing these pollutants from the air, particularly formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene, serving as a first-rate natural air filter.

The lead researcher for the NASA Clean Air Study, Dr. Bill Wolverton explained how this works:

“Plants have two ways to remove indoor air pollutants. Firstly, plant leaves absorb certain organic chemicals and destroy them by a process called ‘metabolic breakdown. Secondly, when plants transpire water vapor from their leaves, they pull air down around their roots. Many microbes live on and around a plant’s root system in an area called the ‘rhizosphere.’ These microbes break down chemicals into elements that both the plant and they can use as a source of food and energy.”

With these new revelations about the health benefit of plants comes a new vigor to preserve as many plants as possible, before it’s too late. Today, more than a quarter of western medicine is derived from the rainforest, and because each year strips of forests the size of Panama are lost to deforestation, we are in serious danger of losing these plants, and their health benefits, forever.

These plants, such as Madagascar’s rosy periwinkle, are not used as remedies for minor coughs or colds but to treat cancer. When the last of these plants disappear, humankind will be in quite the predicament. Our culture only understands how to use one percent of the plants in rainforests — the potential health benefits that may be reached after investigating the remaining 99 percent are almost immeasurable.

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